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Winterfest Turns 50!

The best show on H20: How it started. How it’s going.

by Jenny

By Christiana Lilly Portrait by Jason Nuttle

Winter in South Florida may not be what most people think of when it comes to celebrating the holidays, but for a sub-tropical location like Fort Lauderdale, this town is surprisingly steeped in winter traditions, the longest-running and most iconic, of course, is Winterfest.

Lisa Scott-Founds spends 364 days a year living and breathing for Florida’s largest live, one-night event, the Winterfest Boat Parade. The president and CEO relies on her small but mighty team, as well as hundreds of board members and volunteers to bring Fort Lauderdale’s ‘best show on H20’ to life. And with its milestone 50th anniversary taking place after last year’s pandemic-related cancellation, the iconic parade is going to be bigger than ever. “I’m really excited about this year, our 50th, coming out of the dark,” Scott-Founds says. “It’s just amazing and beautiful to see how people put their heart and soul into making this, how special it is and the best of the best. It takes a village.”

Crowds gather on the bleachers for the annual event.

Like many, Scott-Founds grew up on Winterfest, an event with a $51 million economic impact for the city of Fort Lauderdale during a time when business is slow. She started as a volunteer in 1987, then in 1995 she joined the company as its public relations director. The next year she became executive director, and in 2006, took the helm as the president and CEO. Today, Winterfest has three full-time staffers, a board of 51, an advisory board of 55, and 350 volunteers to keep the ship sailing. For her, the day of Winterfest begins at 5 a.m. First, she checks the weather and water currents, then heads to the staging area to make sure every boat captain knows where they need to be that evening. The Coast Guard checks for manatees in the waterways, and Santa Claus needs to get to his show boat. She’s been doing this for more than 25 years, and she’s prepared for anything: an engine falling off a boat, rain clouds creeping over downtown, even a dog jumping into the river, “You just never know what you’re going to get that day,” she says. “We go on, rain or shine.”

But Winterfest is more than the dazzling boat parade—since October, a slew of activities have led up to the main event, including the annual poster debut, family fun day, the swanky Black Tie Ball, Captain’s Meeting, and Grand Marshal Reception. “It filled hotel rooms, it brought national attention to the destination, it helped change the image of who we were from Spring Break to a year round, beautiful destination,” says Ina Lee, the president of Travelhost Media Group and the unofficial “grandmother of Winterfest.” As the founder of the Winterfest Boat Parade, she is chair emeritus and watched a small collection of boats in 1971 turn into an event viewed by millions on television. “Fifty years ago, a bunch of guys got together, strung a few lights, drank a lot of beer, and the boat parade was born,” she laughs.

Ina Lee, unofficial grandmother of Winterfest.

It started as a small affair in a notoriously raucous Spring Break town. That is, until 1982, when Broward’s Tourist Development Council stepped in to fund the event. Lee was the first chairperson of Winterfest, taking the event to the next level by adding the Black Tie Ball during the booming ‘80s when corporations sponsored yachts, determined to out-do one another. But Lee wanted to go national. Her board, including publicists Jack Drury and Gary Bitner, pooled their contacts and forged a relationship with WSVN Channel 7 to broadcast the show to millions up and down the eastern seaboard. Willard Scott, NBC “Today Show” weatherman was the parade’s first ever grand marshal in 1984. Since then, the title has gone to the likes of Joan Rivers, Dan Marino, Regis Philbin, Kim Kardashian-West, Pitbull, Flo Rida, Shaq and even Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In 1987, Bob Hope taped his annual live Christmas Show from the Sunrise Musical Theater.

The unofficial grandmother of Winterfest, Ina Lee.Ina Lee: Unofficial grandmother of the Winterfest.“It filled hotel rooms, it brought national attention to the destination, it helped change the image of who we were from Spring Break to a year round, beautiful destination,” says Ina Lee, the president of Travelhost Media Group and the unofficial “grandmother of Winterfest.” As the founder of the Winterfest Boat Parade, she is chair emeritus and watched a small collection of boats in 1971 turn into an event viewed by millions on television. “Fifty years ago, a bunch of guys got together, strung a few lights, drank a lot of beer, and the boat parade was born,” she laughs. It started as a small affair in a notoriously raucous Spring Break town. That is, until 1982, when Broward’s Tourist Development Council stepped in to fund the event. Lee was the first chairperson of Winterfest, taking the event to the next level by adding the Black Tie Ball during the booming ‘80s when corporations sponsored yachts, determined to out-do one another. But Lee wanted to go national. Her board, including publicists Jack Drury and Gary Bitner, pooled their contacts and forged a relationship with WSVN Channel 7 to broadcast the show to millions up and down the eastern seaboard. Willard Scott, NBC “Today Show” weatherman was the parade’s first ever grand marshal in 1984. Since then, the title has gone to the likes of Joan Rivers, Dan Marino, Regis Philbin, Kim Kardashian-West, Pitbull, Flo Rida, Shaq and even Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In 1987, Bob Hope taped his annual live Christmas Show from the Sunrise Musical Theater.

Ina Lee and Bob Hope, when he taped his annual live Christmas Show from the Sunrise Musical Theater.

Since 2004, it’s been Susan Renneisen’s job to chaperone the grand marshals. The vice president of community affairs and special events at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and a member of the Winterfest executive committee, she brings the celebrity to the Grand Marshal Reception while navigating television interviews and meet and greets. The day of the parade, she retrieves them from their hotel room to covertly guide them to their boat with a police escort. “I’ve been very blessed to be that person who gets to escort them and have a great time that night,” says Renneissen. She has endless tales: being greeted by screaming fans when she walked “American Idol’s” Randy Jackson out of the hotel, Kim Kardashian braving a torrential downpour, and taking Frankie Valli to Cafe Martorano for dinner, which ended with patrons serenading him with his own tune, “I Love You Baby”.

In the lead up to the big day, Reneissen is also in charge of putting on Winterfest’s swanky Black Tie Ball at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. This year, the casino partnered with Broadway Across America to transform the ballroom into Arendelle from “Frozen.” Another long-held tradition is each year’s official poster; for the 50th anniversary, artist and part-time instructor at Fort Lauderdale High, Charles Fazzino, was commissioned to do his third Winterfest piece. Known for creating streetscapes of the world’s major cities, he created a poster that encapsulates the landmarks of Fort Lauderdale and beyond, with rock bands performing and fireworks exploding over the party. His detailed works take months, from a pencil sketch to the approved design being covered with acrylics and markers, and his 50-person team turning the piece into 3D limited edition prints with Swarovski crystals and glitter. “I really wanted this to feel like a celebration,” Fazzino explained. “The last year for everybody has been a huge catastrophone…it’s almost like a rebirth of the parade.”

Winterfest has had its share of growing pains and in 1991, the lights were almost permanently extinguished due to bankruptcy. It was then that businessman and entrepreneur, Wayne Huizenga challenged the community to save Winterfest, offering to match up to $100,000 breathing life back into Winterfest. Then came 2020 and the parade was canceled for the very first time since its inception. With so many of Fort Lauderdale’s traditions being shuttered or moving to an online platform, the team at Channel 7 brainstormed the creation of a television retrospective.“Just because the event wasn’t going on doesn’t mean you can’t continue to be top of mind with supporters and the community,” says Lily Pardo, Channel 7’s director of public relations. “Last year was tough for a lot of people; this one-hour show brought light and holiday cheer and remembrance.” A Winterfest board member, Pardo got her first taste of broadcasting the annual boat parade when she worked at Channel 7 after college. Typically, the team covers the events leading up to Winterfest, and reporters camp out at the Stranahan House to share the parade for viewers. A one-hour special airs a week later, then again on Christmas and New Year’s Day, including on the airwaves of two sister stations in Boston. For 2020, Channel 7 created a special program following the theme “Home for the Holidays,” showing the best boats from over the years, surprises from organizers, and decorating contests. “The parade is synonymous with the holidays in South Florida and being on the water, it’s unique, right?” Pardo says. “It’s wonderful to be able to bring the parade into people’s homes.”

Winterfest is a far cry from what it was in 1971, today yachts and center console boats are decked out in LED lights, families choose a theme, corporate yachts float down the New River, and live bands perform aboard vessels. This year, almost half of the boat captains are newcomers and sign-ups to participate are ahead of schedule. The return of Fort Lauderdale’s signature event is serving as a reunion of sorts, with ladies headed back to Zola Keller to pick up their gala gowns, as they have for years, and boat captains planning the perfect light display.

And for Lee, it’s a moment to see her first grandbaby, the Winterfest Boat Parade, make it to 50 years through thick and thin. Says Lee “It’s like watching your child grow up beyond your wildest dreams.”

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